LIL NAS X, SOUNDS OF THE INTERNET, AND QUEERING COWBOY MASCULINITY
This paper examines Lil Nas X and his record breaking country trap hit “Old Town Road” (2018), which received immense attention in early 2019 after Billboard removed it from its Hot Country Songs chart. I pursue two distinct but related avenues of inquiry. Firstly, the media coverage of Lil Nas X’s widespread success generally construes it as indicative of the declining authority of the music industry faced with the democratizing effects of new technologies, exemplified by descriptions of Lil Nas X as representing “the sound of the internet.” I deliberate how such a narrative glosses over the conventions and power structures that are maintained in online popular music culture’s dependency on social media. Secondly, Lil Nas X’s combination of country and trap idioms is widely held as confronting (a history of) racial segregation in the country genre, and raises questions pertaining to the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in this domain. In dialogue with perspectives from queer of color critique (Roderick Ferguson; Gayatri Gopinath), I explore the idea that Lil Nas X’s queering of the gendered, sexual, and racialized iconicity of the cowboy both stands as a corrective to accounts of the past that bypass the contributions of black musicians in the development of country music and makes visible new ways of moving past dominant social constraints. Ultimately, the paper directs attention to some of the ambiguities afforded by one of the most widely circulated pop hits of the 2010s, and sheds light on the matter that both capitalistic systems and discriminatory practices prove flexible in adapting to new aesthetic and cultural paradigms.
Kai Arne Hansen is an associate professor of music in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. He has published on issues pertaining to popular music, audiovisual aesthetics, gender and identity, contemporary media, pop personae, and children’s musical cultures. Hansen is co-editor of On Popular Music and Its Unruly Entanglements (2019, with Nick Braae) and Popular Musicology and Identity: Essays in Honour of Stan Hawkins (in print, with Eirik Askerøi and Freya Jarman), is currently editor-in-chief of the Norwegian Journal of Musicology, and is working on a monograph about masculinities in pop music.